A Clean Sweep for Mazeppa
For the twelfth time in as many hours, Roberta stared at herself in a mirror. She’d not made a good impression in her first day at her new job, she was sure of it. She narrowed her eyes, measuring herself critically by her old mother’s disappointed yardstick of beauty.
Roberta too hated every inch of her face. Except her skin. That at least was fair and flawless. But her cheekbones were too pointed, her chin too square, her brown eyes too twinkly and her nose ridiculously turned-up. Try as she might to appear the embodiment of serious efficiency, her expression remained stubbornly comic. Frowning didn’t help. No matter how intently she pursed her narrow lips, she always looked like a clown.
“I’m turning the light out now, Mazeppa.”
The rabbit took no notice. Intent on his nightly ritual, he continued grimly to groom himself, lashing his tongue into his soft white fur with all the vigor of a mad masseur.
Even Mazeppa had little time for Roberta. But at least his initial resentment had grown into a monumental indifference.
Roberta hated her mother’s pet. Not only had her many efforts to make friends been unceremoniously rebuffed, but he treated her little house quite unlike his former Rankin palace, peeing on her carpet and scattering smelly globs of neatly-packed poo in every room but the kitchen. At first, she’d tried locking him in the laundry, but he fretted himself into a hunger strike and began losing fur by the handful.
Twice a week, Roberta visited her mother in the Golden Glory Nursing Home. Old Mrs Rankin had expected daily attention, but Roberta’s bachelor home and now her new job were too far away.
“If you must work in a club, Roberta,” sniffed the old lady, “there are plenty closer.” In her heart, Mrs Rankin resented country clubs. They were “common”. Despite all their high-society members’ lists, their king’s-ransom buffets, gold plush carpeting and improvident largess of furnishing and fittings, they lacked her ideal of homespun respectability.
True to form, old Mrs Rankin never failed to inquire after Mazeppa’s health and wellbeing, but never once bothered with her own daughter’s comfort or security. In the old lady’s mind, Roberta failed miserably to match up to her elder brother, Jack. In fact, all the Rankins and the Hennings doted on the glad-handing, irrepressibly jovial Jack. He was a section manager – kitchen accessories – in an exhaustively advertised department store. Knew all the latest on knives and spoons, blenders and mixers, detergents and crockery, kettles and woks. By comparison, Roberta was a colorless drab.
Determined to prove her mother wrong on all points, Roberta set her mind to making a favorable impression on Mr Vic Smythe, her new boss. She would perform her duties as assistant operations manager with such unobtrusive efficiency and placid resilience that even that most confirmed bachelor couldn’t fail to notice a new star in his workforce.
It happened of course when she was least expecting it. Five weeks into the job and Smythe had scarcely said a word unrelated to club business, –– aside from a few perfunctory enquiries into her health and a couple of equally careless observations on the weather. No major dramas had arisen, no words — heated or small — had been exchanged. A Thursday morning. Roberta was co-ordinating complex weekend rosters. Smythe entered her cramped office, as he often did, and began puttering about with some old account books at the back. Suddenly, without any warning, he kissed her gently on the right ear. Caught by surprise, Roberta flushed. She wanted to smile a modest encouragement, but instead she flushed like a schoolgirl. Smythe hastily retreated.
As soon as she felt able to walk a few yards along the corridor, Roberta made her way to the staff toilet. She washed her face in cold water and then examined it critically in the mirror. The flush was receding. Not that it mattered. Her face looked otherwise the same. Just as pointed and ugly and clownish as ever. What could she do?
Her head spinning, she walked back to her office and sat down at her desk. She was no longer able to bend her mind on rosters. All she thought about was Vic Smythe and how she could indicate that, though he’d caught her by surprise, she welcomed his attentions. Any other girl would have bounced boldly into Smythe’s den, put her arms around him and kissed him on the lips. Roberta didn’t dare.
Finally she hit on a plan. Picking up the roster sheets, she knocked at the door of the manager’s office.
Vic was talking on the phone. He nodded towards the chair in front of his desk. Roberta sat down.
At last Vic finished his call with a tradesman about the complications encountered in fixing the beer pipe lines. He turned his attention to Roberta. Just as she was about to ask his help with the rosters, she suddenly blurted out, “Do you like rabbits?”
“I’m a vegetarian,” he replied coldly.
She flushed again. “I-I didn’t mean to eat.” She’d already discovered his vegetarian life style, just as she knew he was not married. “I-I have a p-pet rabbit,” she stammered. “His name is Mazeppa.”
Vic smiled. “Why Mazeppa?”
“I’ve no idea. He’s my mother’s rabbit.”
“My companion is a Burmese cat. Name of Burma. Not very original.”
Encouraged, Roberta continued: “My mother’s in a nursing home. I’m looking after Mazeppa, but I don’t think he likes me. What can you do to win a rabbit’s friendship?”
Vic’s smile broadened. “I’d say it depends on the rabbit.”
“Mazeppa’s not a very nice rabbit; though my mother loves him.”
“Also not a very observant or sensitive rabbit either by the sound of him.”
“Mother, this is Vic.”
The old lady looked at Smythe with surprise. She’d been hearing about him for two months now, but he was not what she expected at all. He looked like an up-and-coming businessman. At least five years older than Roberta. But well-groomed. Slim. Clean-shaven. Moderately handsome. What did he see in her useless daughter? A girl whose face was too square and pointed. A girl who couldn’t even look after a rabbit, let alone dust a table, make a bed, or boil an egg.
Vic seemed to read Mother Rankin’s mind. He put his arm around Roberta’s waist. “Thank you for your lovely daughter, Mrs Rankin. We plan to get married next month.”
“Next month?” repeated the old lady.
“I’m afraid we’re going to make a clean sweep of Roberta’s house, Mrs Rankin. I’m selling my place. We’ll pay off Roberta’s mortgage, then throw out most of her old junk, and buy new furniture, new carpet, and new fittings all round.”
“It’s going to look lovely, mum.” A smile transformed Roberta’s pointed, squarish face into soft luminous lines.
“We’re going to have to ask you to make other arrangements for Mazeppa,” continued Vic.
The old lady was shocked. “Not keeping Mazeppa? Where will he go? It’s cruel, but they don’t allow pets in here. They say they’re unsanitary. Unsanitary! A rabbit as clean as Mazeppa!”
“There’s always Jack,” answered Roberta.
“Your son, Jack,” agreed Vic. “Time he pulled his weight. Let him look after Mazeppa.”
“Mazeppa doesn’t like Jack,” the old lady objected. “I don’t know why, but they don’t get along.”
“Jack’s so popular with everyone else,” confided Roberta, a touch of sarcasm in her voice.
“I’ll tell you why, Mrs Rankin,” said Vic. “We’ve seen Jack. He found out two years ago: Mazeppa’s a vicious rabbit. He bit Jack. He bit Roberta. I tried every way to make friends with him, but he bit me. But now Jack and Mazeppa are stuck with each other. Vicious rabbits and babies don’t mix.”
“I’m pregnant, mum.” Roberta’s smile broadened. Her face no longer looked clownish or ill-formed, but radiantly beautiful.